Thomas Bilson

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Thomas Bilson (1547-1616) was Anglican bishop of Worcester and bishop of Winchester. He with Miles Smith saw the King James Bible into print.


Life to 1603

His parentage was German, and William Twisse was a nephew.[][][] He was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.[] From 1580 to 1596 he was Warden (head) of Winchester College.[] His pupils there included John Owen, and Thomas James, whom he influenced in the direction of patristics.[]

On becoming bishop of Worcester in 1596, he found Warwick uncomfortably full of recusant Catholics.[][] For appointment in 1597 to the wealthy see of Winchester, he paid a £400 annuity to Elizabeth I of England.[] Christopher Hill speaks of his "unsavoury reputation".[]

Courtier to James I

Bilson gave the sermon at the coronation on 25 July 1603 of James VI of Scotland as James I of England. While the wording conceded something to the divine right of kings, it also included a caveat about lawful resistance to a monarch. This theme was from Bilson's 1585 book, and already sounded somewhat obsolescent.<rsup>[]</sup>

At the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, he and Richard Bancroft implored King James to change nothing in the Church of England.[] He had in fact advised James in 1603 not to hold the Conference, and to leave religious matters to the professionals.[] The advice might have prevailed, had it not been for Patrick Galloway, Moderator of the Scottish Assembly.[] Later, in charge of the Authorized Version, he composed the front matter with Miles Smith, his share being the dedication.[]

He bought the manor of West Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, in 1605.[] Later, in 1613, he acquired the site of Durford Abbey, Rogate, Sussex.[]

He was ex officio Visitor of St John's College, Oxford, and so was called to intervene when in 1611 the election as President of William Laud was disputed, with a background tension of Calvinist versus Arminian. The other candidate was John Rawlinson (1576-1631). Bilson, taken to be on the Calvinist side, found that the election of the high-church Laud had failed to follow the college statutes.[] He in the end ruled in favour of Laud, but only after some intrigue: Bilson had difficulty in having his jurisdiction recognised by the group of Laud's activists, led unscrupulously by William Juxon. Laud's party had complained, to the King, who eventually decided the matter himself, leaving the status quo, and instructed Bilson.[][]

He was appointed a judge in the 1613 annulment case of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex and his wife Frances nee Howard; with John Buckridge, bishop of Rochester, he was one of two extra judges added by the King to the original 10, who were deadlocked. This caused bitterness on the part of George Abbot, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was presiding over the nullity commission. Abbot felt that neither man was impartial, and that Bilson bore him an old grudge.[] Bilson played a key role in the outcome, turning away the Earl of Essex's appeal to appear a second time before the commission, and sending away Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton who was asking on behalf of Essex with a half-truth about the position (which was that the King had intervened against Essex).[]

The outcome of the case was a divorce, and Bilson was then in favour with Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, a favourite in the court who proceeded to marry Frances. In August 1615 Bilson was made a member of the Privy Council.[] In fact, though this was the high point of Bilson's career as courtier, and secured by Somerset's influence, he had been led to expect more earlier that summer. Somerset had been importunate to the point of pushiness on behalf of Bilson, hoping to secure him a higher office, and had left Bilson in a false position and James very annoyed. This misjudgement was a major step in Somerset's replacement in favour by George Villiers, said to have happened in physical terms under Bilson's roof at Farnham Castle that same August.[][]

Ecclesiastical polity, political thought

His True Difference of 1585, as well as aiming at the Jesuits, and replying to William Allen's Defence of the English Catholics (Ingoldstadt, 1584),[] was a theoretical work on the "Christian commonwealth", and enjoyed publishing success. He defended episcopacy, following on from John Bridges.[][] The Perpetual Government of 1593 was a systematic attack on Presbyterianism.[] He was also hawkish against recusant Catholics.[]

His writings took a nuanced and middle way in ecclesiastical polity, and avoided Erastian views and divine right, while requiring passive obedience to authority depending on the context.[][] His efforts to avoid condemning Huguenot and Dutch Protestant resisters have been described as "contortions".[] It has been said that the immediate purpose of True Difference was as much to justify Dutch Protestants resisting Philip II of Spain, as to counter the Jesuits' attacks on Elizabeth I of England.[]

He conceded nothing to popular sovereignty, but said that there were occasions when a king might forfeit his powers.[] According to James Shapiro,[] he "does his best to walk a fine line", in discussing 'political icons', i.e. pictures of the monarch.

Glenn Burgess considers that in True Difference Bilson shows a sense of the diversity of "legitimate" political systems.[]


Henry Parker drew on both Bilson and Richard Hooker in his pamphlet writing around 1640.[]

Bilson argued for Protestant resistance to a Catholic prince. A century later, Richard Baxter drew on Bilson in proposing and justifying the deposition of James II of England.[] What Bilson had envisaged in 1585 was a "wild" scenario or counterfactual, a Catholic monarch of England; [] its relevance to practical politics came much later.

Theological controversy

A theological argument over the Harrowing of Hell led Hugh Broughton to attack Bilson personally, in the "Descensus controversy". Bilson's literal views on the descent of Christ into Hell were orthodox for "conformist" Anglicans of the time, while the Puritan wing of the church preferred a metaphorical or spiritual reading.[] Broughton, a noted Hebraist, was excluded from the translators of the King James Bible, and became a vehement early critic. The origin of Broughton's published attack on Bilson as a scholar and theologian, from 1604,[] is thought to lie in a sermon Bilson gave in 1597, which Broughton, at first and wrongly, thought supported his own view that hell and paradise coincided in place. From another direction the Catholic controversialist Richard Broughton also attacked Anglican conformists through Bilson's views, writing in 1607.[][]


  • The True Difference Betweene Christian Subjection and Unchristian Rebellion (1585)
  • The Perpetual Government Of Christ's Church (1593)
  • Survey of Christ's Sufferings for Man's Redemption and of His Descent to Hades Or Hell for Our Deliverance (1604) against the Brownist Henry Jacob[]


It was his son, the lawyer Sir Thomas Bilson (1579-1630), who was nicknamed "Sir Nullity Bilson", because his knighthood followed on the outcome of the Essex annulment case.

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